Commentary: Next Interior secretary must show more respect for public lands

(Bonnie Jo Mount | The Washington Post) The Toadstool Hoodoos in Kanab, Utah, stand in an area that was removed from Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah in October 2018.

At the end of 2018, Americans stood up for their national monuments in a big way, submitting over half a million comments opposing destructive resource management plans for Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments. Loud and clear, the American people have spoken: We are fired up to keep America’s national monuments intact.

December’s resignation of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is a chance to reflect on a new interior secretary’s path forward. Plagued by scandal and ethics investigations, Zinke initiated a disastrous “review” of national monuments. The public spoke up then, too, with nearly 3 million comments supporting national monuments. Zinke and the Trump administration ignored them and stripped protections from nearly half of the original Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and from 85 percent of Bears Ears — designated in response to an historic request from five sovereign tribes.

Then we learned — from a series of Interior Department emails — that despite the administration’s public stance, the end goal was for expanded mining and drilling within the original boundaries of these monuments.

Like Zinke, I served my country in uniform. Zinke provided lip service about the healing power of nature and public lands. When he made those statements, I agreed with him. Like millions of other Americans and hundreds of thousands of veterans, I’ve found great healing and community on our nation’s public lands.

Unfortunately, the DOI is all too willing to deny the public’s access and pollute the very open-air clinics — our public lands — that so many need to heal from the everyday challenges of life, let alone the traumas of war.

In 2017, 10 years after leaving Iraq as a U.S. soldier, I returned there to ski in Iraq’s only national park. The Iraqis I met were rightfully proud of their beginning steps in land conservation and were excited to share the landscape with me; they even questioned me about the future of America’s national parks given the rhetoric they had heard from our current president.

Our legacy of protected public lands, owned by all Americans, is indeed the envy of the world.

Monument designation was intended to forever protect Grand Staircase-Escalante’s treasures for the benefit of all Americans, including hikers, hunters, anglers and future generations. Instead, we find ourselves in 2019 battling for a monument that is growing southern Utah’s economies: From 2001 to 2015, the region experienced population growth of 13 percent, job growth of 24 percent and personal income growth of 32 percent.

Nationwide, our public lands support an $887 billion outdoor recreation economy, including more than 7.6 million jobs, many in rural communities.

The recently proposed management plan would open 700,000 acres of formerly protected land to mining and drilling, despite multiple pending legal challenges and a shameful lack of meaningful consultation with the tribes. When public lands are leased, it becomes illegal to hunt, fish, hike, ride a four-wheeler or climb on them. More than half of oil and gas leases on public lands sit idle, but all of a sudden, what was once a place to experience freedom is blocked from your use.

All of this should inform the next Interior secretary, whoever it may be. Ryan Zinke’s successor must do what he failed to: Respect science and listen to the millions of Americans — including veterans like me — who support permanent protection of our national monuments. The new secretary must take seriously his or her role as steward of our nation’s iconic lands and drop plans that threaten rural economies and plunder our collectively owned lands. These lands have already been set aside for a higher and better use, and their protections must be permanently reinstated.

Stacy Bare, Sandy, is an avid skier, climber, rafter and a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. He served our nation in Iraq and found healing and a path home on our public lands.